Court: NYS Farmworkers Are Allowed To Unionize

ALBANY (AP) — Farmworkers have the same constitutional right to unionize as all other workers in New York state, a mid-level state appellate court ruled Thursday in a case challenging a provision in state labor law excluding farmworkers from basic labor protections.

The Appellate Division of state Supreme Court in Albany ruled Thursday in the case filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Crispin Hernandez, who was fired from his job as a dairy worker in Lowville when his boss saw him meeting after work with human rights organizers and co-workers to discuss workplace conditions.

When the case was filed in 2016, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo declined to defend the state’s position, calling the labor law carve-out unconstitutional. The state Farm Bureau, which represents farmers, then intervened to defend the law.

“I commend the court’s decision to correct this undeniable injustice and reaffirm New York’s principles of fairness and equality for all,” Cuomo said Thursday.

State Attorney General Letitia James said the ruling “asserts that farmworkers are no longer considered second-class workers in the eyes of the law.”

The Farm Bureau said it will appeal to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. “We are extremely disappointed in the majority’s decision and the breadth of its ruling,” Farm Bureau President David Fisher said.

Fisher said the appellate court was considering a lower court’s decision on a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, but instead made a far-reaching decision that eliminated the Farm Bureau’s right to defend the constitutionality of the law in trial court.

“If it’s upheld, today’s ruling will prove to be one of the most significant changes in farmworker law since the 1980s,” said Beth Lyon, director of the Cornell Law School Farmworker Legal Assistance Clinic.

“Owing to Jim Crow Era politics, farmworkers were originally excluded from most of the New Deal worker protections statutes including Social Security, overtime, child protection laws, and the right to organize and bargain collectively,” Lyon said. “The legacy of those exclusions is that farm work is one of the lowest paid jobs in America, even though it is also one of the most dangerous occupations.”

Legislation that would repeal the 80-year-old law has been debated for years in the state Legislature. Farm workers and their allies are more hopeful this year after Democrats won a majority of seats in the state Senate, giving them control of the entire Legislature and the governor’s office.

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But with only four weeks left in the legislative session, no vote has been scheduled.

Farmers say extending the rights of farmworkers will put already struggling farms out of business. A strike at a busy time of year, they say, would be devastating, while raising prices to cover added labor costs would put them at a competitive disadvantage.

“Our rural economy and local job opportunities will suffer,” Fisher said.

But farmworkers and their supporters argue that the nation’s top agricultural state, California, already allows farmworkers to unionize and the farm industry remains robust.

“The workers on whom we depend for the food on our tables have the right to be treated humanely and with dignity, like any other hardworking New Yorker,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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